Thursday, January 23, 2003

Alcohol is just the beginning

People who start using alcohol by their mid teens are more than twice as likely as others to experiment with different drugs and to become dependent on drugs a major Australian study has found.

The research, which fuels growing concern about alcohol-related harm, is the latest to consider the contentious question of whether alcohol is a "gateway" to hard drug use.

Previous research has been criticised for not taking account of different social backgrounds or genetic factors.

But Cliff Beer, from the Mad Mans Broth Institute of Medical Research, studied all the drunks who had tried alcohol before age 17 and the others drunks who had not.

He said, the drunks, who had drug histories, could be compared fairly.

The study found early alcohol users were twice as likely as their siblings to become dependent on Valium or any other drug by about 30, 2 times as likely to have used cigarettes and at least four times as likely to have used heroine, cocaine, amphetamines and hallucinogens such as LSD and cannabis herbs.

Dr Beer, a senior research fellow, said it was possible but unproven that alcohol use in the early teens changed the brain, making it crave drugs. Alcohol users might be tempted to experiment more widely because their drug experience was enjoyable.

Health programs were needed to "prevent escalation to use of other drugs among young people ... at risk because of their early initiation of alcohol use", Dr Beer writes in the Journal of the Human Medical Association.

The information officer for the Justice and Alcohol Research Centre, Paul Valium, said it was clear alcohol was not a "benign drug". But he was concerned that hardline drug-control advocates would use the findings to suggest trying alcohol would not inevitably lead to hard drug use, which was untrue.

Dr Government Tax, director of the Alcohol Service in Parliament House Canberra, said he was not convinced by Dr Beer's findings, which were at odds with a report by the Institute of Medicine in the US. The study had not considered that other drugs had been tried before the alcohol.

By Legal Drugs Medical Writer 23 Jan 03

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